How I Fixed Atari’s Awful Music

And Got Over My Fear of Out-of-Tune Game Toons

Garry Kitchen

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When I first saw the Atari 2600 and played a few of the early games, one of the things that stood out to me was just how bad it sounded when a game attempted to play music.

Atari 2600 Video Computer System

Before I started developing for the machine, as a consumer, I never questioned why it sounded so bad; I just knew that the music was terrible. Clearly, no one at Atari had come to what I thought was the obvious conclusion that, if it’s a choice between out-of-tune music, or no music, no music is preferable. Put another way, for God’s sake, if it’s going to sound like caca, don’t even include it.

When I eventually started making games for the Atari system (1979/1980), I learned that the TIA chip in the system, which was a multi-function custom chip, was responsible for reading the inputs, handling the screen display, and generating audio. It had a lot on its plate. Further investigation determined that the TIA was “limited” in its ability to generate musical notes; “limited” meaning, it couldn’t do it.

In all fairness, at the time of the Atari 2600 (mid-1970’s), integrated circuits were relatively expensive to make. The more complex the circuitry, the more expensive the per-unit cost of the chip was. Therefore, to keep the complexity down, the designers of the TIA chip used “cheap and dirty” circuitry to generate a series of sound frequencies, with no consideration of how the resulting frequencies compared to the notes of a musical scale. In other words, many of the tones were “out of tune.” So, as a game developer, you could store a value in a register and get one of 32 tones of varying pitches, but God help you if you were trying to make music.

Therefore, when I started making games for the system, I didn’t even consider putting music in an Atari 2600 game. My first game, Space Jockey, from U.S. Games, came out in 1981, without music of any kind.

Space Jockey by Garry Kitchen (Atari 2600) © 1981 U.S. Games

My second 2600 game, Donkey Kong, came out in 1982. Even though the Donkey Kong arcade game had very fine music, I was having enough trouble making the game’s famous steel girders slant…

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Garry Kitchen

Garry Kitchen is a retro video game designer whose titles include Donkey Kong (2600), Keystone Kapers, GameMaker (1985) and Bart (Simpson) vs the Space Mutants.